Movie Review: Ready Player One

We’re awash in nostalgia.

With nearly all of Hollywood’s tentpole films this year devoted to sequels, reboots, and remakes, it can begin to feel like our culture is merely remixing the past, with the internet leading the way as we meme our way into a space somewhere between South Park‘s “member berries” and Star Trek‘s “Darmok.”

That is to say our nostalgia has a currency to it, and some of it is baseless circle-jerking, (‘Member Star Wars? Oh, I ‘member!) or “member berries” for short.

And some of it passes on important meaning, emotion, and lessons that can be best expressed by a cultural metaphor or meme (Darmok and Jilad at Tinagra.) See? some of you probably teared up a little at that reference. Because it conveyed something more than just the nostalgia itself.

So, in steps Steven Spielberg — whose name is basically a meme in itself — to direct the adaptation of Ernest Cline‘s novel about a dystopian near-future where everyone has retreated from a crappy real world to the comforts of The OASIS, a massive virtual reality video game where you can be and do anything. Upon the death of the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), he reveals he has hidden an “Easter Egg” within the game, and whoever finds it first by completing three challenges and collecting three keys, will inherit sole control over The OASIS.

Our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an easter egg hunter, or Gunter, who has devoted his life to studying Halliday and all of the pop culture and video games he loved, especially from the 1980’s. He and his friends end up on the trail of the egg, battling along their way evil corporation IOI, their limitless virtual resources, and its ruthless CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

pooh piglet darmok

The first question is, how does it compare to the book? Throw away all of your expectations and most of the plot of the book. This is almost wholly different in terms of plot points, but somehow manages to capture the spirit of the book’s challenges better than the source material itself.

A major criticism of Cline’s prose is that it is an almost relentless onslaught of references. It also is hugely problematic in that it is essentially a male power fantasy wish fulfillment engine fueled by our collective nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s.

Nostalgia is a heady elixir, and one which we should understand if we are to put it in its proper place. The word itself comes from greek roots — “algia” meaning pain (eg, fibromyalgia, nueralgia, etc) and “nostos” meaning to return home.

We ache for a place that we wish we could get back to, but, as the saying goes, you can never go home again. The current wave of 80’s nostalgia seems almost insane to someone who was actually there — social and economic conservatism, economic torpor, the cold war, and, yeah you had cool music and movies, but only as an escape from reality.

And in the 80’s you had a revival of nostalgia for another inexplicable time period: the 1950’s. It’s worth pointing out that to many Boomers entering their cultural heyday in the 80’s would mean a longing look back at their childhoods through films like Back to the Future and Stand By Me. So, seeing our current fascination with the 80’s and 90’s as the exact same phenomenon, but now it’s Gen X and Millenials looking back, helps put it into context.

But the most important thing to remember about all of this is it is never as good as you remember it. Cline’s work was always nostalgia-forward, hoping to plaster over any plot or character problems with warm feelings about Star Wars and John Hughes. And it largely worked, but it was more member berries and less Darmok.

Spielberg, on the other hand, is able to tease out the essence of what made the book great and concoct a new cocktail of kid-friendly adventure (his specialty) and dystopian revolution where the nostalgia bomb works to propel characters and situations forward rather than miring them in cultural onanism. It’s character and theme forward rather than nostalgia forward. And the cultural references play more as Darmok, such as when Wade talks about one of Halliday’s favorite movie quotes from Richard Donner’s Superman, “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

The best example of this is a section in the middle of the film where our heroes have to find a key hidden in a recreation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Whereas in the novel, Wade had to “play through” the clunky-and-not-as-good-as-you-remember-it-I-promise War Games as Matthew Broderick’s character (and later through Monty Python and the Holy Grail), the on-screen version was more about elucidating the best pieces of  The Shining, again, as a sort of cultural currency. It’s almost as if it’s Spielberg’s chance to fanboy-out over something– as though he is Halliday leading us through something he loves. The care and beauty in this sequence is unmatched anywhere else in the film as filmmaker and material almost become one.

That’s not to say the rest of the film is bad. But it does seem a little more pedestrian, but perhaps in the way Spielberg is able to use a light touch to bring the best of his back catalog to life. Because that’s ultimately what nostalgia is — a sense of missing or loss or want of something that never actually was. It’s not that Spielberg’s work as director or executive producer was always so perfect or important, but that time has imbued it with meaning. Exhibit A is a movie like Hook, which was savaged by critics and not a huge success, but which holds a special place in the heart of so many people today.

Perhaps the best departure from the book is the film’s treatment of its female protagonists. Elite (l337) video gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is shown to be just as much a hero in her own right as Wade’s “Parzival” and given much more to do in the film than the book, where she was somewhat relegated to a “digital manic pixie dream girl” and “girlfriend as reward” trope in the finale. Instead, she figures out the key that ties all of Halliday’s clues together to provide an incredibly refreshing message at the end: we should all sometimes put down our video games and spend some time outside in the real world.

And it is in the real world where real girl Samantha (nee Art3mis) saves both the film and the world. She also has a real-life grudge against megacorp IOI that helps tease out the film’s dystopian themes, hopefully making us think of current problems with net neutrality, income inequality, payday lenders, etc, etc. She grounds the film. She’s the real hero, even if we’re focusing on Wade a little too much.

And what film would work without a great villain? Mendelsohn’s Sorrento is a delight in how evil he is. And yet, like all great villains, he truly believes that what he’s doing is right. Much like another film that mashed together references and universes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,  Nolan Sorrento is very much like Judge Doom. Doom wants his freeway full of billboards and suburban sprawl to replace the simplicity of public transportation on the redcar. Sorrento wants to replace a largely free-to-play experience with tiered service and advertising — and it’s worth noting through the film that almost any time you see an advertisement in the real world, it’s for IOI.

Ready Player One isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun. Its technical wizardry is unsurpassed. And at its heart is a filmmaker in a perfect zen state able to balance nostalgia and fun without overplaying his hand. In thirty years, kids who were born in the 2000s will be talking about Ready Player One in the same hushed, reverential tones 80’s and 90’s kids talk about The Goonies or Jurassic Park.  And hopefully we take the film’s message to heart — of living in the real world and putting aside our escapism to try to confront real world dystopian nightmares — and make sure our actual 2045 has the fun and imagination of Halliday’s OASIS and none of the real world nightmares of Wade Watts’ existence. Just don’t fill up on member berries.

3.75 out of 5 stars